SXSW 2016 Interview | Don Coscarelli on Remastering ‘Phantasm’

The director of the cult horror classic admits to adding one visual effect, but he won't say what it is.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Do you, dear reader, recall a film called Star Wars: The Force Awakens? It was released last December, and it was a modest hit in certain areas of the country. In that film, directed by one J.J. Abrams, there was a minor character named Captain Phasma, a gun-toting soldier played by masked actress Gwendoline Christie. Phasma, as many may know, was named after one of Abrams’ favorite movies, Don Coscarelli’s 1979 cult hit Phantasm.

Phantasm is a wonderfully weird horror/sci-fi film about the wicked machinations of an evil mortician, and his connection to interdimensional imps. His weapon of choice was a handful of shiny silver billiard balls that could fly through the air, sprout blades, and drain your head of blood. Director Coscarelli, with Phantasm and with other hits like The Beastmaster and Bubba Ho-Tep, is considered one of the premiere genre directors of his generation alongside people like John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, and Wes Craven. 

Crave recently had a conversation with Coscarelli about the restoration of Phantasm, and what exactly had to be corrected. And why.

Crave: How did this who project come together? Did you get a cold call from J.J. Abrams one day?

Don Coscarelli: It wasn’t quite like that. It started a loooong long time ago in a graveyard far, far away. J.J. Abrams called up, oh, about 12 years ago, back when he still doing TV stuff. I didn’t know who he was. He said “I’m a TV producer, and I love Phantasm.” And we started talking about it. In fact, at the time, I think we were finishing up Bubba Ho-Tep. And I got a little trouble with the editing process, and I was having trouble making that movie come together. And I brought it over and showed it to him and we hung out and he was a real cool guy. And, over the years, from time to time we stayed in touch. I introduced him to Angus Scrimm, and he ended up putting Angus into a recurring role on his Alias TV series. Angus really appreciated that and really enjoyed it.

Flash-forward to about a year and a half ago, I got another call from J.J. and he wanted to screen Phantasm for his workers over at his company Bad Robot. And I told him that the only choice he really had was my scratched-up old 35mm print, or the standard-def DVD. Those weren’t really great choices, so he said “Oh, we gotta fix that!” So he put [me] in touch with their head of post-production, a guy named Ben Rosenblatt, and he came up with this plan as to how to restore the movie efficiently. So that’s how it started.

And you’ve seen it?

Oh absolutely. I was over there at Bad Robot usually at night. Because they would be working on the Star Treks and the Star Wars during the daytime, and then at night, when they were freed up, they would call me and say “hey come over if you can spare a few hours with the color correction guy.” And so it was pretty amazing. I really think that it’s a huge improvement. Before it looked like you were watching the movie with sunglasses. Now you can see the green in the actors’ eyes!

AVCO Embassy

AVCO Embassy

Was there a time in 1970s when it was better, or is this the best you’ve seen?

The thing was that the quality control in the film laboratories in the late ’70s and the early ’80s wasn’t that great. And I think that everyone’s fondness for film is a little – I dunno – not quite what people think it was. People didn’t take care of that stuff. As a consequence, there was a lot of negative damage that we were able to clean up. And dirt. And also, I was able to adjust framing, so the frame was properly composed. And able to erase errors. For instance, there was a yellow bucket in that white mausoleum left behind by a crew person. And you could see it at every screening. Luckily, I was able to get that erased.

But the cool thing, beyond just the visuals, there was a Phantasm fan working over at Bad Robot working in their audio department, and he did a complete audio restoration, which is just… it’s never sounded better. In terms of the separation of the 5.1 stereo. And the music, a lot of which was recorded with mono originally. Now there’s a depth and a richness to it that’s just wonderful. It’s so exciting. And I think it’s going to be so much fun to talk to these devoted fans who have watched the film 10, 20 and 30 times to see what it looks like now. That’ll be really cool.

Was there anything that needed to be recreated wholesale? Something that just couldn’t be salvaged?

It was pretty much just the cleanup. In terms of animations, I guess I’ll go on record now to say that there was one… Well, here’s the thing: We cleaned up all our special effects. When we were making the original Phantasm, there were no digital effects back then. Everything was done with Scotch tape and a lot of fishing line. How else did you think we got those balls to fly? And I can tell you now that we removed all the fishing line. Which you used to be able to see in the DVD version of it. Now you can’t. And that looks great.

But we did enhance one special effect. And I’m not going to say which one it was. But we did have an early preview of it with some folks who could be very discriminating, and nobody noticed it. So I’m really excited about that.

AVCO Embassy

AVCO Embassy

What is that the Bad Robot people said to you about Phantasm that made it one of their favorite movies?

I think that it’s… I guess I could repeat some of the specific things that [Abrams] has mentioned. But, truthfully, when you’re of an impressionable age – and I’m not sure when he saw it, I’m guessing he was in his teens – the first movie that you see that really freaks you out or scares you, it’s like a first crush. It sticks with you for the rest of your life. Invaders from Mars was the first movie that really freaked me out as a kid. So I can’t help but look upon that movie with fondness. And maybe Phantasm did something like that. Some of the concepts in Phantasm are strange and definitely out there.

Top Image: AVCO Embassy

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at@WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.

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